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Remembering Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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April 4, 2008 | bpfna

A last minute change in plans led Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. from a trip to support the gubernatorial candidacy of an African American in North Carolina to Memphis, Tennessee the first week of April 1968.

On April 3, King had led a march protesting the low pay for black garbage collectors. That night there was a mass meeting held and King was to speak. Feeling sick he had initially asked Ralph Abernathy to speak for him, but, enthused by Abernathy’s speech, King rose to deliver what would be his final speech. King had included the lines, “I have seen the promised land” and “I might not make it with you” before in speeches, but it proved to be all too true that night. The full speech can be found at: http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/sayitplain/mlking.html

When King spoke a year earlier at The Riverside Church in New York City, he did so because of a statement that church had made about the Vietnam War. Quoting from that statement, “A time comes when silence is betrayal,” King said, “The calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.” 

For almost 25 years now, the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America has spoken out for peace rooted in justice. Early concerns included nuclear proliferation, apartheid in South Africa, the revolution in Nicaragua, racism, and conscientious objection. Statements, resources and our newsletters and journals all spoke boldly of the need for peace, most specifically that elusive peace that is based on justice, not a mere cessation of fighting. 

Always seeking to broaden our vision and to understand better, we spoke even when we thought very few people were listening. 

Pam De Young wrote a moving article in a 1987 edition of PeaceWork, then BPFNA’s newsletter. In it she told of a letter her nine-year old son had written to President Reagan (“Please stop the Bombs.”) and the response he received (a full-color brochure of the White House); clearly the President was oblivious to her son’s “urgent message.” She goes on to say, “Oblivious aptly describes many Americans’ response to the crisis facing our country…[I]f they have momentarily faced the truth about our self-serving violence, they have found it too overwhelming to even try to sort out.” 

Following the attacks in the US on September 11, 2001, BPFNA spoke of the need for a different response to the harm done to so many. Ken Sehested, then executive director wrote, “Part of our prophetic calling is to insist that there are rival, realistic, and spiritually-informed alternatives to those policies which depend on superior firepower and the need for political dominations. We lift them up and, together with all who share this common vision, recommend them to our national leaders.” 

I wrote of the need for a response based in restorative justice; address the crime – don’t start a war. “The perpetrators need to be brought to justice in an international court of law…Diplomatic action along with crime investigation needs to be part of a police action that seeks out the individuals responsible. Justice can be done, but not through an ongoing war.” 

But now there is good news! Forty years after Martin Luther King was shot down in Memphis and eleven years after Pam De Young wrote those despairing words, US Americans have looked at the current world situation and said, “Enough!” A recent New York Times/CBS poll showed that 81% of US Americans say that “things have pretty seriously gotten off on the wrong track.” All signs point to people looking for a new way – a way that doesn’t kill innocent women, children and men, that cares for the earth, that provides enough for all.

On April 5, 1968, King said, “[A]nother reason that I'm happy to live in this period is that we have been forced to a point where we're going to have to grapple with the problems that men have been trying to grapple with through history, but the demand didn't force them to do it. Survival demands that we grapple with them. Men, for years now, have been talking about war and peace. But now, no longer can they just talk about it. It is no longer a choice between violence and nonviolence in this world; it's nonviolence or nonexistence!” 

Let us choose to rededicate ourselves to that “vocation of agony,” to continue to speak for peace rooted in justice. We know what King saw from that mountaintop. It’s time we crossed over into the Promised Land.

-Evelyn Hanneman, BPFNA Operations Coordinator

photo courtesy of the Scurlock Collection
Copyright © Smithsonian Institution, www.si.edu

 



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